The Battle of Brains
Canada's men of science are protecting our armed forces, perfecting new weapons, beating enemy ingenuity — A glimpse of the National Research Council's war work
RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES
FROM the vantage point of the control room, the scene is one that H. G. Wells might have conceived. Gigantic glass and metal mushrooms and bobbins; a maze of mighty vacuum tubes, insulators and transformers, rise twenty feet, dwarfing the attendants. Glass, wiring, switches gleam—the whole apparatus reflecting hidden reserves of energy and power. “What is it?” I ask. “A secret weapon?” The guide smiles. “Our X-ray machine,” he explains. “X-rays! Aren’t they used to diagnose disease— fractures?”
“Exactly,” says the guide. “But in this case its metal— airplane parts—that are being examined. Just as pilots are selected by most rigid physical tests, so are their machines literally subjected to ‘ordeal by X-ray’.”
The attendants below place an aircraft landing wheel on a movable stand, swing it into position. The power is switched on. There is a hum, a spluttering. The attendante hurry off. It is dangerous to health to stand too cloco to the machine day after day. Switch off. The wheel removed, part of a bomb rack is swung into place.
Bn a few minutes the plates will be developed. A study will tell the experts whether the X-rayed parts are fit to stand the stress of war. Because of this test, in weeks to come. $100,000 worth of airplane and the lives of its crew may be saved.
That machine, its sisters, and a big brother 600,000volt ray apparatus for testing heavy metals used in ships and armored cars, are housed under the roof of the National Research Council of Canada. It is an example of what modern science is doing in our war effort, one of many phases of a remarkable work.
The home of the National Research Council—and it’s an imposing edifice—covers a full block along the right bank of the Ottawa River in the nation’s capital. Within the labyrinths of this strongly-guarded building are scores of vital war-research laboratories, upon the results of whose studies the success or failure of a considerable proportion of the Empire’s war effort may depend.
THERE is no more hush-hush spot in Canada than this.
Most of the work is highly secret. Very few of the achievements are publicized. Nevertheless, from what one is permitted to see and hear, it is evident that many an unpleasant surprise for the Axis is being prepared.
A small but vitally-important army of 570 professionals and technicians, including some of Canada’s most brilliant scientists, works here at research problems covering every field of military equipment. In co-operation with their opposite numbers in Britain, this army races against time, and in competition with the scientific brains of the Axis, to provide our fighting services with arms capable of giving us superiority over the Nazis.
These scientists of Mars are young—noticeably so. I expected to find those operating the intricate machinery and conducting research, men of middle age, the professor type. I was wrong. “We are a youthful organization,” officers of the National Research Council are proud to say. Perhaps it’s just as well. For here they must ever look ahead, must slash red tape, ignore taboos, traditions and limitations of the past.
Despite the atmosphere of efficiency and co-ordination, there is little unifoi mity. The variety of activities unfolds itself dramatically and kaleidoscopically before the visitor. One passes through a seemingly endless array of textile, aviation, electrical and chemical laboratories, naturally omitting those where secret work is done. We see rooms where tests are in progress to determine for the Department of National Defense the best materials for shoes and fabrics; the airworthiness of parachutes for the Air Force; the measurement of gauges for private industry. We visit laboratories studying methods for increasing magnesium production, for magnesium is the lightest known structural metal and when used in aircraft construction permits a considerable increase in useful load and flying range.
In one laboratory, helmets are examined to discover why some are penetrated by bullets while others simply bend. Another is crowded with amazingly intricate apparatus for testing the accuracy of munitions gauges and tools. Distance from thread to thread of a screw can be determined to an accuracy of 2/100,000 of an inch. Gauges too small to be measured directly are first enlarged by projection on a screen.
The mechanical-engineering laboratories contain equipment for the study of aeronautical and hydrodynamic problems. Here, too, the machinery is massive, towering high above the research workers, some of whom wear the uniforms of the R.C.A.F. Wind tunnels, engine-testing apparatus, model-testing basins, drafting tables at which work comely young women, fill every available square foot of space.
With a terrifying roar a giant fan drives air at speeds up to 160 miles per hour through a wind tunnel. In the man-made hurricane is suspended a toy-like model aircraft made to exact scale. It is attached to a number of fine balances. Will the wings withstand the pressure? Is Continued on page 24
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the fuselage properly streamlined? Are there any projecting parts which reduce speed? All these questions are answered long before the real aircraft is built. Miniature pontoons are attached to these craft to discover new types of the former, new models suitable for a wide variety of conditions under which the Air Force may be called upon to operate.
The research requirements of the aircraft industry, the Empire Air Training Scheme and Empire Air Forces have long since outgrown the existing facilities. Soon new aeronautical laboratories will be housed in their own set of buildings on a 130-acre lot near the Ottawa Air Station. One of the innovations will be a vertical wind tunnel for the study of the effects of dive bombing.
The number of discoveries in the various fields of aviation made by the scientists of the National Research Council is steadily increasing. A long-sought improved method of defrosting propellers has been developed, as has a new corrosion-resistant coating for use in aviation fuel drums. Important progress has been made in the elaboration of methods for the manufacturing of plastic planes. Most of the discoveries must remain secret for the time being.
TN ONE corner of the Textile Laboratory
of the Division of Chemistry, a girl operates a “breaking strength” machine that looks like a weighing scale. She is testing fabrics by subjecting them to a pull equalling half a ton. Nearby, peering through two eye pieces, another young woman counts the number of threads-perinch in fabrics. On a large table a complicated piece of apparatus, composed of glass tubes, valves, bottles and rubber hose, serves to determine how efficiently-treated fabrics can resist the penetration of gases.
Next, in a metal drum encasing a highpowered electric light, cloth is “weathered.” In the space of a few days the effects of many months of wear can be obtained to determine the length of time the given fabric might be able to resist the ravages of the elements. A “Fugitometer” makes accelerated fading tests on dyed fabrics emulating in a few hours the effects of prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.
Everything done here saves money for the taxpayers and almost certainly saves lives by ensuring the most perfect possible performance of machinery and weapons.
Watching these scientists and their assistants at work one is forcibly struck by the appropriateness also in this case, of the observation Winston Churchill made in reference to the Air Force. Surely “many”
owe a great deal to our “few” men of science. The truth of this is reflected in the work of that hero of the scientific world, the late Sir Frederick Banting.
He was an inspiring example of the earnest men and women engaged in war research. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities Sir Frederick, as one of the fifteen members of the National Research Council, was sent to England to co-ordinate wartime Canadian scientific endeavor with that of the United Kingdom. He was chairman of two of the thirty-six associate committees of the Council, the Committees on Medical Research, and on Aviation Medical Research.
These committees are still at work. When the history of this war is written it may well be revealed that these two groups of scientists will have contributed as much to the eventual decision as any other body of men in the Empire. Here, too, wartime secrecy surrounds most of the results achieved, but a few hints are contained in a recent report of the National Research Council. In two terse modest paragraphs, said to have been dictated by Sir Frederick himself, we are given a concise review of the great service rendered Canada by the two committees.
When war began they were confronted with a number of problems. One was to design a test by means of which the most suitable men could be selected for pilot training, thus saving many lives and much equipment which otherwise would have been lost through haphazard recruitment. Prof. E. A. Bott, President of the Canadian Psychological Association, led a panel of psychologists in formulating tests for use in the selection of Army and Air Force personnel.
Another problem was to discover, if possible, means of preventing blackout, the curse of the fighter pilot who almost always momentarily loses his vision when pulling out of steep dives. Momentarily, yet this moment may be as long as eternity, for within it his aircraft may come into the range of enemy fire. The warring nation which first discovers the solution to this pressing problem will earn as reward an increased efficiency of both pilots and planes. It is not known whether the Axis has succeeded in this, but our own committees have accomplished, we are told, “a great deal of hopeful work in this field.”
TDOSSIBLY the greatest service to our T armed forces, and mankind in general, has been the recent world-wide development of methods for wound treatment to prevent secondary infection—the Continued on page 26
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scourge of the battlefields and military hospitals during past wars. Just before departing on his, fateful Europe-bound air trip, Dr. Banting stated that the Canadian committee was well on the way to the development of what may prove to be the most efficient method of treatment. “Where ten died before, ten will certainly not die now,” he told an officer of the Council.
Sir Frederick Banting died in the line of duty. His work goes on. His fellow scientists are studying new methods of defense against chemical attack, elaborating protective and preservative coatings for aircraft (invisible paint?) and electrical plotting devices for sound ranging; manufacturing military optical equipment and naval and radio devices, searching for truly “secret” weapons.
As the war increases in intensity, government and industry present science with ever greater demands. Before the war, only 308 staff members were employed by the National Research Council. The present number, although almost doubled, is still short of requirements. Departments for which research work is being done must often assign their own specialists to work under the guidance of those of the Council, either at the Ottawa laboratories or in the field.
Nor can everything be done at Ottawa. Through associate committees, and in other ways, the scientific institutions of the Dominion are enlisted to share in the effort. The committees include representatives of government departments, branches of the armed services, universities, industry. They study the problems, survey the field to discover needs, decide what new work ought to be done and suggest where and by whom it is to be carried out.
This co-operation is not limited to Canada. The National Research Council collaborates with similar bodies in other dominions and in the United Kingdom, and maintains dose contact with corresponding organizations in the United States. “We know everything scientists in the United Kingdom are doing and they know everything that we are doing,” Mr. S. J. Cook, Officer-in-Charge of the Research Plans Section of the Council says. It was in pursuance of this relationship that Sir Frederick Banting was making his trip to England.
To further cement co-operative ties, British scientists come to Ottawa on special assignments while Canadians go overseas. Australians and New Zealanders en route, via Canada, to England stop over to work at the laboratories for a few weeks. Professor R. H. Fowler of Cambridge was designated by the government of the United Kingdom to serve as scientific liaison officer for Canada. Recently he returned to England, and Sir Lawrence Bragg, one of Britain’s outstanding scientists has arrived to take his place.
War conditions have firmly welded the link of the National Research Council with the armed services. The Council is directed by the Committee of the Privy Council on Scientific and Industrial Research, which is headed by the Hon. J. A. MacKinnon, Minister of Trade and Commerce, and consists, in addition, of the Ministers of National Defense, Finance, Mines and Resources, Agriculture, Pensions and National Health, and Labor. The President of the National Research Council is Lieutenant-General A. G. L. McNaughton. It was he who, during the nervous years following Hitler’s rise to power, made plans to integrate Canada’s science with the war effort, when and if necessary, and it was logically he, who, soon after his return from a trip to England
during the summer of 1939, placed Canadian science on war footing. Today his place at the head of the Council has been taken temporarily by C. J. MacKenzie M.C., B.E., M.C.E., M.E.I.C.
TN EVERY respect the Council is a *■ national organization. In addition to distributing scientific work among as many scientists and scientific institutions in the Dominion as possible, it also endeavors to mobilize the inventive and scientific genius of the general public.
Immediately following the outbreak of hostilities, the government established an Inventions Board, under the auspices of the National Research Council, in order to appraise the scientific value of the inventions submitted. To date nearly . 7,000 proposals have been received, others are now arriving at the rate of fifty a day. Each is carefully studied and reported upon and those that are promising are referred to the appropriate offices of the Army, Navy or Air Force, or in special cases, directly to the Admiralty, Ministry of Supply, or other similar bodies overseas. While many of the suggestions deal with problems that had been previously investigated, and often with ideas that have been .adopted, there are occasionally original proposals of real merit.
Whenever a dramatic war event is reported in the press, the Inventions Board is almost certain to be swamped by letters. Such was the case, for example when the time-bomb fell near St. Paul’s Cathedral ih London. Within the space of a few days, hundreds of letters poured into Ottawa suggesting means for the rendering of the bomb harmless. At least one was so good that it was immediately forwarded to London. Suggestions for aircraft engines, bombs, submarines and torpedoes, are received daily, and although some of them are well within the “screw' ball” class, the Inventions Board welcomes them all.
In these, and many additional ways, Canada’s men of science, led by the National Research Council, contribute to the war effort. They follow every lead; ' scores of them co-operate on single projects, each doing his small part. As each bit of information is obtained, it is tried out in practice. There is a steady struggle for achievement, a steady progression of results—a steady contest with the best brains of the Axis.
There are occasional defeats. But there are also resounding victories. Largescale scientific research in Canada is comparatively recent. And the number of victories grows with experience.